Lessons from winter

Can I weave a nest for silence,
weave it of listening,
listening,
layer upon layer?

May Sarton, from “Beyond the Question”

I told you once, there are four of us Backyard Sisters.  Today’s post comes from the eldest,  Theresa, prompted by a telephone conversation.

Winter

“I drove in the dead winter,” she tells me one day.  “From Des Moines to Minneapolis. And it was darker than dark except for headlights on the highway. And I thought of letters flying through cyberspace, of too many words, like those headlights.

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“And I thought of a poem by May Sarton.  Then I wrote this for you.”

Theresa’s my hero. She finds a way to quietly approach life, to focus as if each moment, each person, each word matters.  I’m happy to share my big sister with you.  Here’s Theresa…

sisters

“words once spoken, can tear down or build up – but can never be destroyed.”

I wrote that when I was 14 or 15 years old, probably after an angst-producing adolescent moment – and I still think about words a lot.

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This 27 ft x 17 ft sculpture, Nomade, is by Jaume Plensa, who “envisioned the letters as building blocks for words and ideas, in the same way human cells form tissues, organs and bodies.”  It sits in Des Moines’ outdoor sculpture park.

DSCN0865I too believe that words and ideas form us in the same way our cells give us shape and I believe that we are all the better that words can’t be destroyed or we would have lost our earliest stories.

But one must first become small,

nothing but a presence,

attentive as a nesting bird,

May Sarton, from “Beyond the Question

I also think about how today thoughts can be casually dispatched as quickly as you can type and in a split second be launched at someone or some group and preserved forever in our digital minds.

I picture cyberspace as the darkest of nights, illuminated by flashing lights like lightening bugs and trailing comets, letters strung together careening and whistling to their intended targets.

And then I think about us, how we see this chatter, day and night, incessant words, constant words, bathing our thoughts and I wonder what will come of this, what are we building?

What happens in a world when conversation is mostly visual and  there are few pauses between our words? Where are the spaces in our communication now, the opportunities to pause and reflect before answering, or to just sit in comfortable silence with one and other.

Beyond the question, the silence,

before the answer, the silence.

May Sarton, from “Beyond the Question

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This amazing technology that allows us to connect instantly is for the most part a gift, allowing families and friends to share their lives in a way never before possible. But like all blessings, it might also be a curse, teasing us into believing that putting thoughts into words without pausing to consider the effect or substituting virtual reality for an opportunity to connect with a real person is the way it is supposed to be.

I have no answers – I suppose when the telephone first became available to most people, there were those who declared it unnatural and dangerous to humanity, most likely by someone like me who tends to think too much… However, quite by accident, I stumbled upon a book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle.

alone-together-cover

Sherry Turkle is director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self and spoke with Krista Tippett about this topic on “On Being” recently. Do you think we really expect less from each other?  I’m going to download the book on my Nook and start reading.

You don’t expect me to throw the baby out with the bathwater do you?  I’ll let you know what I learn.  Until then,

Happy wandering –
Theresa

p.s. Catherine here ~ What would happen if today, this week, this year, you focused on treating the words you release as precious as art, as air?  Celebrate silence. Be attentive “as a nesting bird.” Speak and write carefully.

 

Through the open window…

A coyote yips and howls. I don’t know what time it is, still dark. The Siamese jumps onto the sill, presses her body against the screen, hackles raised.  She emits a low moan. In the distance an owl hoots and the dog rumbles a half-hearted growl. J still sleeps, so I get up to close the window and notice a pinking sky over the mountains.  The cat and dog settle back down, tightly tucking into furry curls against the January chill. But for me, the night is over.

Today, this not-the-first-of-the-year, but this ordinary-Thursday-when-the-holiday-rush-has-finally-faded is my annual Life Visioning day.  It begins when I light a candle against the dawn.

Candle

Actually I begin every day by lighting a candle and spending moments deep in reflection.

What am I grateful for from the previous day?

Gratitude Journal

a little dancing after dinner
candles on the hearth
neighbors who share homegrown oranges

With a smile and fortitude from recalling all that’s good, I next invite my sacred heart space to be bathed by a divine floodlight where I cannot hide, not even from myself.  I think back to the day before, and remember ways I did and didn’t act in alignment with my values and intentions.  Can I repeat what went right? Can I correct the imbalances that caused failure?

I set me intentions for this day, write my to-do list within this womb of new dawn freshness.  Then, I pray. I trace the presence of my family and friends upon my hands, using one index finger I begin at each fingertip recalling a name, a need, until the faces and the names of all those who are close to me are joined in the center of my heart-side palm.

Hands

I leave this meditation time by rejoining the entire human chain with an invocation for peace and love, “For those who will be born today, and those who will die.”  Each month I also add a special intention.  My January focus is, “For those who struggle with addiction or mental illness and for those who care for and try to love them.” I join my hands together, press them to my heart, bow to the sunrise and begin my “real” day.

Oh my goodness, telling you all this was difficult.

I’m an intensely private person by nature. There were years and years and when I didn’t even tell my own husband that I prayed, let alone that I meditated and lit candles in the dark and drew his name upon my palm.

Why change?

Maybe I’ve decided that being myself is something I should do publicly.

Maybe I wrote, be yourself out loud on my to-do list this morning and it’s too early in the year to break promises to myself.

It is, in fact, right in the middle of the month the Backyard Sisters have dedicated to focus and while Susan will tell you how to focus your camera, I am relegated to suggesting ways to focus your writing life.

I learn today that the word focus comes from the Latin focus, meaning “hearth, fireplace.

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focus (n.) 1640s, from L. focus “hearth, fireplace” (also, figuratively, “home, family”), of unknown origin, used in post-classical times for “fire” itself, taken by Kepler (1604) in a mathematical sense for “point of convergence,” perhaps on analogy of the burning point of a lens (the purely optical sense of the word may have existed before Kepler, but it is not recorded). Introduced into English 1650s by Hobbes. Sense transfer to “center of activity or energy” is first recorded 1796.

Inspired by the connectivity to the word focus and home, as nurturing my family ties always rises to the top of any priority list, I reread my last year’s life vision and adjust paragraphs or sections that no longer seem important.  I focus on the lines that have followed me from year to year to year.

Write a book. Write a book. Write a book.

I realize I am. I have. Written the book(s). I just haven’t pushed hard enough for publication.  I cross out the line. Write a book. I revise: Send out book.  We are only in control of our own actions, I realize. And now is the time to act with focus, with fire, with the kind of fierceness you would use to advocate for someone that you love.

With light and love
~Catherine

Précis: (This is a lovely new word I discover today. It means a summary.)
When you sit in peace, quiet self-truth speaks loudly. Pay attention to what you’re trying to tell yourself.

Practice:  
Can you create a vision for your life?  Nothing fancy, just write about the life you want to live.  I live in a house small enough to vacuum in an hour.  Date it.  Remember to include all the elements of nature: Air-spirit.  Fire-ambition.  Water-refreshment.  Earth-body.  Space-mind.  Focus on one action for each element that you can accomplish within the next month or so.  Write that down too.

Play:
Create a scene of dialogue between two characters, one whose inner and outer life is aligned – think Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee – and another who projects a false outward image – think Fermina Daza from Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Now what would happen if they end up in a story together?

“Get up! Get up!”

I dream last night of my grandmother, my mother’s mother, the one my sisters and I call Gammy.  She was one of the original Backyard Sisters, the youngest of four girls born in an  Illinois small town.  She always wore high heels and a silk petticoat, carried a patent leather pocket book, and never pierced her ears.

leonard girls

Gammy, far left

No one laughed like Gammy, or danced like Gammy, and lord knows no one loved or was loved quite like Gammy. Our mother, an only child, and we, her four granddaughters, were the sun around which she revolved. She was the kind of grandmother who, with each hello or goodbye, would clasp her hands around both your cheeks, pull you within inches of her own face, and with her eyes drink you in like whiskey the first night Prohibition was lifted.  Not that Gammy ever drank. She was a confirmed teetotaler.  Her giddiness bubbled purely from joy at being alive, surrounded by family.

We girls loved her back with reckless abandon.

Gammy has been dead now for almost 12 years.  But last night, when she leaned over me, right there in the moonlight, white lacy dress fluttering as she circled her hands over my head and cajoled, “Get up! Get up! Get up” I was only slightly surprised.  See, even though I use the term “dream,” to name these occasional encounters, it feels like a much more substantial spirit than my subconscious.  The other sisters will tell you their own stories about Gammy visits.  It’s like she was right there, right there in the room… The only difference between our stories is what she tells us.

“Get up! Get up!”  Oh my Gammy knows I’m struggling with rising out of the holiday stupor of too much food and too much fireside reading and too much nothing-to-do.  It’s January 4 and I haven’t yet set my intentions for the new year, haven’t decided yet what to focus on.

_MG_8208 focus

And focus I must. Why?

Because, like the holidays, my to-do list is rich with too many good things and I’ve been acting like that squirrel in the headlights, unwilling to say yes to anything because I’ll have to say no to so many others.

There is one sacred rock.  Family. There are 22 of us now, our parents, we four sisters and mates, our own children and in-laws. We gather at least once a month to celebrate birthdays, or graduations, or holidays.  We bake Gammy’s cake recipes and roast chicken like she did and never say we’re too busy to sing and dance in the kitchen.

But work projects are essential.  Our writing, teaching and photography sustain us and pay our bills.  And then what is life without trying to leave the world a little better for someone else?  Nothing! Gammy would say.

So in honor of what would have been Gammy’s centennial year, the Backyard Sisters decided to challenge ourselves.

We’ve selected 12 photographic terms, one to concentrate on each month.  These words convey a message, or capture a moment, a mood.  We’ve picked expressions that easily become inspiration and metaphor for family, for creative projects, for our place in the human collective.  They’re essential to saving life’s ordinary moments from the brink of oblivion; without these intentions meaningful art and life become difficult.

Our theme for January is focus. Works for photography.  Works for poetry.

it is out of focus

“It Is Out Of Focus” by Joel Lipman, (Poetry Foundation)

Ansel Adams once said, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” (LensWork, Issue 55, page 33.)

The Backyard Sisters welcome you to 2013 with words, with photographs, and yes sometimes silence, just to remember.

Each day we all travel one step closer to the inevitable endless silence of death.  The challenge then is to leave behind the words, images and memories that when recalled will reflect our best efforts.

Are you with us?  Then “Get up! Get up!”  The program begins on Tuesday. Until then, think about what deserves your attention this year.

With focus,
~Catherine and Sue

I waited all winter to tell you

under the ancient oak
an empty picnic table

I wrote those lines late last December after a walk with Chester, the big white dog. I remember well the afternoon we wandered in the gloaming, he with all the bounce and romp of a puppy and I with some elegiac tang induced by another year’s looming end.

fog swirling mist
descends upon the night
chill

the stars are crying.

Why so sad? I wonder now in summer’s glare.

summer afternoon shade
untied my shoes

I wanted to tell you how the table surprised me that afternoon when I turned left on the path instead of right. There were no tables anywhere else in sight, just this one simple wooden stopping place.  I waited through January, February, the bluster of March to give it to you, not from the vantage point of the path which ran past it, but with the solidity of its worn wooden bench beneath me, with the joy of describing the summer solstice meal I ate from atop its uneven surface, with the fervent vow to eat al fresco more this summer than last.

So much depends upon a wooden picnic table in a winter afternoon.  I felt a new comprehension of William Carlos William’s 1923 poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

I wanted to tell you how my table seemed embedded in the grass, as if it had roots like the oak above it, how it was the soft brown of shadow on bark with bright orange streaks where a kind of moss grew upon it as if it were a living thing.

By April I vowed to eat at a different picnic table each week this entire summer. I would dine under the sky! Describe parks and beaches and campgrounds! Find new vantage points!

Then I wondered; would that plan celebrate the novel and restless over the warm familiar? Maybe instead, I should resolve to meet this table and this table alone with my basket all summer.

so much depends
upon

I think of Monet’s Haystacks, the artist’s study of light upon a common object.

I think of Antonio Porchia‘s slim volume, Voices, the writer’s light fixed on common man.

I have scarcely touched the clay and I am made of it.

I think of something as solid as wood in a world which feels more like a river than stone.  Anticipation is delicious.

under the ancient oak
an empty picnic table
summer afternoon shade

Summer begins yesterday.  I wait as long as I can.  Noon turns to afternoon turns to almost twilight. I’m ready with camera and Chester and a brown paper bag full of first peaches because it’s the kind of day where I don’t have time to cook.

We go the long way, take the path which curves first left, then right, then around the bend of the seasonal creek, the path which places the setting sun behind my shoulders which casts my shadow long and makes me look as if I’m always arriving.

Chester pulls on the leash.
And there under the ancient oak.

It’s demolished. The table top now lies at the bottom of the creek bed.

“Certainties are arrived at only on foot,” Antonio Porchia writes in Voices.

Past tense and future crumble the present I was given and never received. As I walk home, I know. I waited too long to whisper my secret wish to picnic with you, but I will tell you now.

~ With high hopes for surprises along your own path, C

Give the people a love story

What are you writing?
Everyone wants to know.
Wretchedly miserable love poems, I say.
The poems or the love?
You, of all people, must know.
(from beach bag journal, 2005)

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Kauai is a study in couples.

Yesterday’s bride perches poolside, feet dangling in the water.  A fraternity-size of group of men surrounds her, holding out icy cups of beer.

“Drink!”
“Drink!”
“Drink!”

“No more!” she insists and jumps to her feet.

Newlywed

As she sashays away the rhinestone word scripted across her bikini bottom sparkles in the afternoon sun. The man wearing the white Groom hat downs his beer and doesn’t follow.

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Fewer people will look you in the eye and say, I could be your lover than the number who will say they’re thinking about becoming a writer too.

Which one of these is the harder thing to do?
(from beach bag journal 2006)

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The friends who join us on this trip point out The Feral Pig, a restaurant that used to be a breakfast place.  “We ate there on our honeymoon. ”

These are the kind of friends we’ve had since before we both married that hot summer of 1980, D and I trading bridesmaid duties.

Today they giggle, then tell us a honeymoon story.

One morning, we saw a couple eating breakfast there.

They just sat at a table, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper.  They never even talked to each other.

We think of that couple all the time.  We don’t to be like them.

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Repeat after me: Give the people a love story.

Los viejitos sólo deben salir para ser amables.  Old people should only go out in public to be sweet.

This quote is attributed to Leopoldo, the uncle of Aura Estrada, Aura, the muse and amor of author Franciso Goldman, Aura, the woman who died in a freak body surfing accident and then Francisco wrote about her in the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.  In Say Her Name, Francisco says,

“Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that’s my advice to the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair, breather her in deeply. Say her name…”

He can write about love like that because he doesn’t have it anymore and no one can accuse him of being sentimental.

I read Say Her Name on the beach and remember a question I once asked an entire class at the end of a semester when I was a literature grad student.

“Where, where is the happy love story, the great literature happy love story?”

Titles peppered me like small darts. Love in the Time of Cholera.  Anna Karenina. Lolita.

So I start with Lolita. I find love in a million masks: obsessiveness, possessiveness, irrationality, kindness, tenderness, anger, illness, forgiveness, relief and release, madness. Is this the only kind of love that makes great books? I really need to know the answer to this. I really need to find a happy love literary feat.

My friend who’s never been to grad school but loves to read suggests Rebecca.   I look it up, it’s a romance novel. I don’t read it.

Maybe love and literature are like the raindrops in a storm.  Who can write well about one small droplet of water without evoking thunder and floods and the loss of sun behind clouds?  One small drop of fresh water. Where’s the miracle in that?

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“We’re on our honeymoon.”

I tell this to my husband, (isn’t that a glorious word?), I tell my husband this as we stand at Gate 45 in LAX preparing to board our flight to Kauai.

“Our honeymoon. Yes. I like the sound of that.”

In truth, we’ve been married almost 32 years.

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Writers block only happens when you stop telling the truth.
(Scribbled in my Theory of Fiction Class Notes)

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The Gray Divorcés

The divorce rate for people 50 and over has doubled in the past two decades. Why baby boomers are breaking up late in life like no generation before.
Wall Street Journal headline, March 2012.

One small drop of fresh water. Where’s the miracle in that?
Repeat after me:
Give the people a love story.

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You don’t brick over the hearth if the fire burns out.  You gather kindling and tinder. You haul in logs from the woods.  Hell, you cut down the whole damn forest  if you must.

You hold a long-stemmed match to crumpled paper of your past and breathe and blow to fan the flame. You swear to tend this fire as if your life depends upon it.

You don’t want to be that couple that doesn’t hold hands on the beach, nor the one who doesn’t talk at dinner.  You want to be that one over there, the one laughing in the surf, holding hands.  I wonder if they’re on their honeymoon?

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“Write love stories. I benefit when you write love stories. I’ll be your research.”
J says this to me one day when I say I’m only writing sad stories.
(From my journal, March, 2007)

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Just don’t lie to me says the writer to the heart. It makes the work turn out badly.

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I tell J I’m sorry. I can’t write a happy love story. I wonder though: can I write you a life instead?

~With love, C

Things I find on the beach

A found a cat’s eye marble once.  A salt-pitted wedding band.  A mirror.

And you, of course, in my beach journal from Kalapaki Beach, Kauai one June.

Overheard in the water, father to his daughter on Saturday

The knee-high girl with butter blonde hair is bright as a bobbin in pink rash guard and orange ruffle bathing suit.  As she jumps small waves, she practices a new word.

Here comes undertow!
Can you see undertow?
There it is—
There’s undertow!
Here it comes again!
It’s undertow!
Jump undertow!
Here it is!
Here’s undertow!
We can’t ride undertow!
He can’t hurt you!
Here it is—
He’s undertow—

A wave washes up to her chest and she screeches in the way little girls at the beach sometimes do.

“Daddy!”

The man standing with her pulls her high into the air.

I’ve got you— I’ve got you—
I’ve got you—
Don’t worry
That’s just the current
It won’t hurt you
It can’t carry you away.
Don’t worry. I’ll never let go.
I’ve got you.
I’ve got you honey, I’m here.

Overheard the same day
This from the man in the navy blue baseball cap and black sunglasses to the boy calling, “Dad!  Dad!” who is trying to cling to his neck in the waves.

Touch me one more time and I will walk straight up to the babysitter and make a reservation for you.

The boy swims to the shore and walks away alone up the beach without looking back.

Later that day:  Seen but not heard at sunset

The man and woman recline side by side on lounge chairs.  Both silent. Both reading. She sets down her book, glances at him.  He doesn’t look up.

She peels her pink tank top over her head, sheds her khaki shorts.  She tiptoes across the hot sand to water’s edge and sits, facing the sea.

He looks up from his book to the horizon.  He sets down the book, stands and picks up a camera from the small glass side table.  His gait across the sand is silent, bobbly. Quite slow.  He peers through his viewfinder as he walks.

Without a word, he places his hand hand on the woman’s shoulder.  She swivels her head, upturns her cheek, mouths a silent “Oh?”

This is the moment he presses the shutter.  Then he lowers the camera from his face and returns the smile she shines upon him.

What else do I find by the sea? A thought.

Hours ago, a huge dock was found on Agate Beach in Oregon, debris finally at rest after its untethering from Japan during last year’s tsunami.  You can read about it here.  Official reactions are mixed.  Some marvel at its long journey. Others worry about the environmental contamination it might bring.

On this day by the beach, I too can’t help but wonder:  Will I leave behind delight or detritus today?  And you, what about you?

With all due respect to oceans and tides,
~C

“Stop this day and night with me…”

This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.

Angel’s Apple Blossom

I saw Angel today.

He sat slumped in the driver’s seat of his sagging brown truck in the General Store parking lot at ten in the morning guzzling beer from a 24 oz. can.  His head waggled and seemed disjointed from his neck. His red eyes blazed. When I jumped out of my car and tried, after all these years, to finally thank him he waved me away with a wobbly hand.

“No, no, no.”

What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you?

I had hired Angel one winter to mow my grass and pull weeds, to prune my roses and feed the orange trees. He did those things sporadically and not very well.  His strength was drinking beer and surprising me with gifts.  His specialty was to plant what appeared to be utterly dead fruit trees in my yard.

“The other house, no want,” he told me the first day I came home to find a bony trunk with naked branches staked on the fringe of my grass.

“What is it?” I asked.

Angel spread his muddy palms to the sky and shrugged.

“Fruit.”

“What kind of fruit?”

He spread his muddy palms to the sky and shrugged.

Slowly a patchwork orchard emerged in my backyard. Angel murmured to the branches as he hand watered the circles of dirt around each tree.  When he caught me watching him, he smiled broadly.

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

“Is it alive?”

Angel nodded, always yes.

“What kind of tree?” He spread his muddy palms to the sky and shrugged.

Each tree ignored my need for it to prove its place by greening, then blooming on any proper schedule.  I researched the rhythm of bare root fruit, but spring didn’t bring an end to the mystery.  The trees remained unfazed as earth turned toward blooming season.  I stopped inspecting the branches after a while and began instead to consider how hard it might be to pull up dead trees.

Then one damp night I was restless and wandering, wanting stars.

Solitary at midnight in my backyard…

Angel’s first tree shimmered in the moonlight.  I walked up to it and swear I heard trumpets. What I had missed all those days, looking from afar at the branches barren of leaves was the riot of ruffled pink popcorn pearls pinned on slick branches. Tight blossoms were poised this night to begin a wild unfurling.

Peaches?
Apricots?
Nectarines?

What could I imagine eating sun-warm some months from now?  What might I capture in jam jars to tie with red gingham?

Earth! you seem to look for something at my hands,
Say, old top-knot, what do you want?

The next time I saw Angel and showed off our blossoms he smiled, more bemused at my excitement than joyful for the harvest. He never doubted fruit would come.
A peach tree.
An apple.
An orange.
Another apple.
A plum.
An apricot.

For seven years Angel tended our slowly growing orchard.  His faith in the indiscernible life hiding within brown leafless branches scavenged from other yards was impeccable.  Then one day Angel stopped coming. Yet every now and then a new barren tree would appear in my backyard and I would look over my shoulder, half expecting him to be squatting at the base of the apple tree, his favorite spot, humming absently.

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

I began to wonder if I’d imagined the man.  When he called himself Angel was that a name or his being?  I took over the care and feeding of the trees and silently thanked him with each basket of ripe fruit I brought into my kitchen. I shared the bounty with neighbors and told them about how Angel showed me that you could save a thing by moving it to the right home and tending it with water and words.  Was I creating a myth?

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean…

Today as I walk back to my car, rebuffed, I turn my palms to the sky and shrug.  Driving away, I wonder: If I could plant Angel in my backyard would he bloom again?

Angel’s Apple Tree

I exist as I am, that is enough…
Imagining you in health and sun,
~C

Note:  The words in italics come from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself (1881).  Today would be Whitman’s 193rd birthday.  If you’re lucky enough to live in or be visiting New York this Sunday, June 3, you can participate in the Ninth Annual Walt Whitman Marathon Reading of “Song of Myself.”  For more information about the man, the poet, or events at Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center in West Hills, NY, visit http://www.waltwhitman.org/